For a long time, I have struggled to fit into institutions. My skirt was too short. My buttons weren’t done up. My jumpers were too tight. Bras too push-up, too bright, or not at all. Too much makeup. Not enough makeup. Blah, blah, blah.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with this story. Boys, don’t think you’ve escaped—think about having your beard shaved off with some rusty razor they kept behind the desk (true story, they did this at my high-school). Or even hair-length rules, because it’s “untidy” (read: “unmanly”). What sort of messaging is this? You can keep your 18th-century sideburns for all I care, it’s none of my business you’ve chosen virginity. It doesn’t change your ability to perform your role. But the administration cares. Oh boy do they care.
In high school, it might have been about “preserving the school’s reputation” or whatever, but it’s becoming more and more clear that dress codes are about policing bodies. School uniforms enforce conformity, and—grossly—’morality’ on teenage bodies. Just teach sex education properly; it’s not that hard. Pun intended. Teenagers are smart, but it doesn’t take a genius to read between the lines about dress codes and their racist, sexist origins. Just look at the history of policing Black hair. In a more local context, naturally textured Māori hair has also been persecuted as “untidy” or “unprofessional.” Cousins (2021) depicts protagonist Mata’s struggle in white institutions. As for the sexism, see the whole history of feminism—and no, I won’t apologise for that over-simplification.
But I want to talk about what school dress codes morph into at university level, and in the general public—”professional dress.”
Ugh. I can’t believe I did this but yes, I Googled this phrase and clicked on the WikiHow and “Glassdoor.com” article that popped up first. I mean, everyone is going to know exactly what these articles say.
Here’s the first item on the WikiHow list: “Determining the Level of Formality of Your Workplace.” So, some offices are more formal and some offices are more casual, or creative. Some places you can wear whatever you want to work, and I think that’s great. However, the WikiHow article notes, “Formal business attire is typically the dress code for high-profile jobs”; “‘Business casual’ is the term often used for less formal (but not informal) office environments.”
And this is where I have beef. Think about what “formal business attire” or “business casual” means to you—does it look like a suit, or some version of a suit? Are you picturing a suit? Cool. Now is it a nice suit? Yes? Because a badly-fitting suit is unprofessional, right? Now who is likely to be able to afford a nice suit for everyday wear, or an interview? I’ll let you put two-and-two together. In no particular order, that’s the first problem.
Secondly, think about “formal business attire” for a woman. Because I’ll bet you were picturing a man—hey, I was. Now, what is this woman wearing? Is it “conservative?” The WikiHow article is littered with cautions to women about dressing “appropriately.” Why isn’t this same messaging targeted at men? If a woman is “too sexy” is she still considered professional? No? So why are men in suits consistently positioned as sex symbols? Sometimes in—*gasp*—half unbuttoned shirts? Is that not unprofessional?
Any deviation from the gender binary also used to be seen as “unprofessional.” Early working women were forced to wear skirts. In my humble opinion, a tell-tale sign of a social construct is when the definitions keep changing. A pantsuit could be argued as the height of professional attire for women in the late 20th and 21st century.
Now, what about cultural dress? Would I show up to an office in my kebaya? Maybe in my field, but in a more “professional” field, it would be too bright. For a special occasion, yes, (which is good! More diversity!) but in an every-day “professional” setting, we’re emulating Western traditions of dress.
This begs the question: why is Western formal dress “normal” and expected, and any deviation from that is punished? One doesn’t have to look far to see this; just this year, Rawiri Waititi was thrown out of Parliament for wearing a hei-tiki in place of a tie. It’s not the first time non-white cultural markers have been persecuted under this banner either; Air New Zealand repeatedly lands in hot water for their discrimination against Tā moko. These instances are symptoms of wider structural issues, so don’t whinge to me that it’s “been resolved.”
A further scroll down the WikiHow article mentions fabrics like silk, linen and wool, conveniently neglecting price barriers. It recommends muted colours—again, leaving the LGBTQIA+ community, and many diverse cultures out of the equation. It even explicitly recommends that you blend into the office environment—in the Westernised, colonised Anglosphere, it’s not hard to figure out what that means. Assimilate at all costs.
Then the WikiHow article starts policing body hair, talking about unibrows and stubble. But what about the many people that just naturally have more body hair? It doesn’t make them unhygienic, or invalidate their skills or education or experience, and it doesn’t make them any less good at their jobs. So, what gives?
There’s so many other red flags I could talk about, but the final one I will point out is the ubiquitous “no jeans” thing. Or, “be careful with jeans.”
Let’s do a brief recap of the history of jeans. They were invented in the late 19th century and became popular throughout the 20th century among the working class for their durability and practicality. More and more women adopted them as they began working in factories during the wartime. Jeans, especially blue jeans, have come to symbolise the working class and the increasing economic independence of women. Now you tell me why jeans are considered “unprofessional,” even though they’re historically interchangeable with “work-wear.”
But there are real consequences for not presenting “professionally.” Haefner’s 2008 survey  found 41% of employers were more likely to promote “professionally-dressed” candidates; it rises to 55% of employers in certain industries, like finance. Brandt  found that patients prefered physicians to dress in a certain way—to no one’s surprise, men over 55 favoured women in skirts. This influenced patients’ trust and satisfaction with their healthcare. You also don’t have to look very hard (type “professional dress codes” into Google Scholar) to find studies that link “professional dress” to an increase in perceived competency, trust-worthiness, efficiency, friendliness, intelligence, understanding and dependency.
It’s not all bad. These studies are also finding that definitions of “professional” dress are changing, albeit slowly. Although dress codes have relaxed, it seems like there are still nebulous “industry standards” of dress that hold remnants of these problematic attitudes. People dressed in “formal business attire” are still consistently perceived more favourably.
But given the transparency of the purpose of dress codes, isn’t it time we let that go?
My female-identified law friends tell me they feel pressured to wear makeup. I’ve seen countless Tiktok memes about “First year at X job, second year, etc.,” where the employee’s appearance begins to ‘deteriorate’—a fascinating insight into what’s considered “professional” in each industry. My creative friends tell me they feel pressured to wear fun, colourful clothes—hello Gormans!—when, let’s be real, most artists do their best work in sweatpants and a singlet or similar states of undress.
Like many of my not-so-hot takes, I don’t actually have an answer for you. Defy “professionalism,” in the workplace, or don’t. I’m not trying to judge you. Personally, as an educated woman of colour who once got called a “dark horse” for winning an Academic Excellence Scholarship, it’s a point of pride that I can challenge perceptions of “professionalism.” Thankfully my Chemistry lecturers understood I could do thin-layer chromatography in a crop top just as well as in a blouse. It’s more than just bodily autonomy at stake—though that should be enough to convince you. It’s cultural identity, ethnic features and diversity that are being oppressed.
But at the same time, those who are already marginalised by cultural identity, ethnicity or sexuality are the ones feeling the most pressure to conform to standards of “professional dress.” And in a lot of cases, it’s about safety, job security, hireability, or promotability. It’s about survival.
So, “professional dress” isn’t strictly good or bad, and I’m certainly not going to be hypocritical and dictate what you should wear. We can’t expect social expectations around dress to disappear overnight. But it’s still worth questioning why we make these connections. Maybe one day professional dress will have nothing to do with enforcing oppressive normative binaries and creating visible class divides. I guess we can only hope.
 Haefner, Rosemary. “How to dress for success for work.” Retrieved January 27 (2008): 2009.
 Brandt, Lawrence J. “On the value of an old dress code in the new millennium.” Archives of internal medicine 163, no. 11 (2003): 1277-1281.